LONDON, June 27 (Reuters) - The world will reach a turning point next year when for the first time most of its population will be living in towns and cities, a U.N. agency said on Wednesday, warning the change must be managed carefully.
Unless urban planners make provision for this inevitability, particularly in the developing world, towns and cities risk being swamped, Thoraya Obaid, head of the U.N. population fund (UNFPA) said.
"Urban growth is happening. It is inevitable," Obaid told Reuters as the organisation's State of the World Population 2007 report was published.
"But unless you manage it, it will manage you and could become a hotbed of political unrest and armed conflict."
The United Nations has sounded the warning several times before, most notably in U.N. Habitat's 2003 report on the growth of slums which are home to a third of the world's urban population.
But the UNFPA's latest report is the clearest message yet.
It says by 2008 more than 3.3 billion of the earth's 6.6 billion people will be urbanised, rising to five billion in 2030. Most will be in developing countries, living in cities in low-lying coastal areas at high risk from flooding due to global warming.
Between 2000 and 2030, Asia's urban population will double to 2.6 billion people, while Africa's will more than double to 742 million from 294 million. In Latin America and the Caribbean it will surge to 609 million from 394 million.
"If we want to capitalise on the potential of this urban migration then we should change our mindset," Obaid said.
Policies have to be changed and the proper investments and programmes have to be made," she said. "Slums, poverty and violence exist because urban growth has not been well managed."
Obaid said rather than try to keep back the tide of urban migration as is generally the case, urban planners had to set aside land with basic services like water, shelter and sanitation to accommodate them.
That would allow for proper spatial planning and avoid the unfettered mushroom-like growth of slums, and also bring incoming people into the urban fold and the local economy -- particularly women and the young.
"Urbanisation is a force for good if it is well harnessed and well managed," Obaid said, noting greater independence for urban women and better access to health and family planning facilities.
But unplanned urbanisation bred poverty and hopelessness and handed gangsters and unscrupulous local politicians a ready market for exploitation and abuse.
The report noted that, contrary to expectations a decade ago, megacities -- those with more than 10 million people -- were not where most growth was now taking place.
Instead, the expansion was occurring in cities of half a million people or less which had largely escaped planners' attentions to date. These cities had few facilities and even fewer plans to cope with their burgeoning populations.
"We have to try to change the way people think and act, and we must start now, before it is too late," Obaid said.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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